Quiet energy revolution underway in Japan as dozens of towns go off the grid

by Aaron Sheldrick and Osamu Tsukimori

Reuters

A Miyagi city’s efforts to rebuild its electrical power system after 3/11 mark a quiet shift away from Japan’s old utility model and toward self-reliant, local generation and transmission.

After losing three-quarters of its homes and 1,100 people in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the city of Higashimatsushima in Miyagi Prefecture turned to the government’s “national resilience program,” with ¥3.72 trillion in funding for this fiscal year, to rebuild.

The city of 40,000 chose to construct microgrids and decentralized renewable power generation to create a self-sustaining system in Tohoku capable of producing an average of 25 percent of its electricity without the need of the region’s power utility.

The city’s steps illustrate a massive yet little known effort to take dozens of the nation’s towns and communities off the power grid and make them partly self-sufficient in generating electricity.

“At the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake, we couldn’t secure power and had to go through incredible hardships,” said Yusuke Atsumi, a manager at Hope, the utility the city created to manage the local power generation and grid.

Under the large-scale power system, Atsumi said, a “blackout at one area would lead to wide-scale power outages. But the independently distributed micro-grid can sustain power even if the surrounding area is having a blackout.”

The government funding is mainly for building backup capabilities for cities and towns in the event of another disaster, such as the earthquake and tsunami that caused meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

However, the program has spurred the creation of microgrids and distributed power generation that reduces municipalities’ dependence on large power plants.

The ministries are seeking to raise the budget for the program by another 24 percent for fiscal 2018 starting April, the Cabinet Office said last month.

The money earmarked for this fiscal year is going in part to the creation of smart energy management systems and distributed generation systems in towns across the country.

“Since Fukushima, there has been a gradual elaboration of policies to realize that kind of local autonomy, local consumption paradigm,” said Andrew Dewit, a professor of energy policy at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

Distributed generation uses small-scale power generation fueled by natural gas or solar- and wind-power arrays. Smart energy systems use the internet to connect appliances and meters to better direct electricity where and when it’s needed.

Higashimatsushima has built its own independent transmission grid and solar panels as well as batteries to store power that can keep the city running for at least three days, according to Atsumi.

Companies are shifting their focus in response to the changes.

Sekisui House, Japan’s biggest builder of detached homes, built Higashimatsushima’s smart microgrid for 85 housing units in 2016.

Taisei Corp., one of the nation’s biggest construction companies, set up an energy strategy division this year to take advantage of the drive for smart energy systems.

The company is planning to double energy-related orders to around ¥120 billion over the next five years, focusing on renewables, energy-efficient buildings and smart communities, a spokesman said.

Steps taken by cities like Higashimatsushima were the brainchild of Takao Kashiwagi, a professor at the International Research Center for Advanced Energy Systems for Sustainability at Tokyo Institute of Technology.

He designed Japan’s first smart town and is the head of the New Energy Promotion Council, which has paid out more than ¥100 billion in subsidies from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to build smart energy communities.

“We are moving toward a day when we won’t be building large-scale power plants. Instead, we will have distributed power systems, where small power supply systems are in place near the consumption areas,” he said.